A Framework for Fairness: Introduction

I’ve been working today to expand my ideas around ‘fairness’, what it means to factor being fair into leadership. I’ve been writing and drawing all day… it’s late… i’m not done yet… so in the spirit of #WorkingOutLoud, i’m sharing the introduction. More tomorrow!

What does it mean to be fair? What does it mean to do right? These are not idle questions: for an organisation to be socially responsible, for it to be magnetic to talent, for it to be agile, it needs to be well led, and leadership needs to be fair.

In the Social Age, hierarchical control is subverted by the power of communities and the social authority that they wield. Communities (both within and outside of the organisation) are able to harness the mechanisms of social media to generate momentum and effect change. Some organisations, like the NHS in the UK, are developing models of change based on an understanding of this. The ‘Healthcare Radicals‘ approach uses sanctioned subversive communities to empower individuals to shape, direct and share their efforts, within a framework of permissions and learning created by the organisation.

But the our world is riven by the potential of unfairness: the new social contract between organisation and employee means there is no job for life, there is little security, there may be no space for fairness anymore. We see organisations spiralling out of the space that society more widely wants them to inhabit: the banks with their fractured cultures, the privacy issues surrounding technology, the ethical dilemmas of pesticides and GM crops, the search for oil, the inequalities of rich and poor. Whichever way we look, we see failures of fairness.

And yet it’s such a simple concept: how have we ended up here?

I’ve become increasingly interested in what it means to be fair: not in an abstract and intellectual way, but what it means at the practical levels of management and running a business, at the day to day space we inhabit where we have to get stuff done. I’ve explored ‘fairness‘ in Social Leadership and the wider question of social responsibility, but in this article, for the first time, i want to start sharing some ideas of a framework for fairness. A practical way of analysing a situation to work out what’s fair, in the moment, and how we consider fairness over time.

Below is a matrix capturing the four aspects of ‘fairness’ that i’ll be exploring tomorrow


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Ignorance or Bliss?

There are many things i do not know and will never learn.


Algebra remains a mystery. String theory. Piano. I have never learnt to ride a motorbike. I do not know how to program in C+ and i don’t even know if anyone still learns.

I do not know how to find the corpus callosum, despite a keen interest in neurology and i doubt i could relocate your dislocated shoulder.

I cannot swim more than a length and speak no Spanish. Or Russian. I can quote Einstein in Twitter sized bites, but will never read his works.

I read many books: i will never read them all.

I have been to many places, but will never get a full set.

The things we do not know vastly outweigh our knowledge: but what we do not know simply describes our wisdom. We are not defined by ignorance, but rather through that which we learn.

Our ability to remain curious in the face of overwhelming ignorance is what makes us special.

When we define ourselves by our ignorance, our limits are endless.

When we keep learning, it’s the possibilities that have no end.

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Building a culture of sharing

In an open culture, we share: we share our successes, our failures, and the respective paths we took to achieve both. The end point is incidental to the act: it’s the mindset of sharing that helps us to be more open, accountable, adaptable and agile. It’s the act of sharing that helps us to be wise.

A culture of sharing

Does your organisation have a culture of sharing, or is knowledge still used as a mechanism of control?

In the Social Age, reputation is forged in our communities, founded upon reputation built over time. it’s consistency of action and reaction that counts. Leaders who are humble, who share wisely and act consistently can develop stronger social authority and, hence, be more effective in the communities that help us to be agile.

But share what?

Our time, our knowledge, our capability, our wisdom, our communities, our expertise. It’s not just about curating content and sharing it (although that is a key skill for social leaders), but also about sharing our capacity. It’s about helping out.

A sharing culture is one where the default position is to be open, to be curious. It’s permissive of diversity and difference and welcomes permission to experiment.

Sharing is not about reciprocity: it’s about clarity of purpose and openness of intent. If we share wisely, we build bonds, we build reputation, we strengthen our tribe, and strong tribes are ‘sense making‘, they help us fathom our path through the Social Age.

A sharing culture is not the preserve of New Age cooperatives or collectives: it should be front and centre of any healthy and competitive organisation. Share with your friends, share with your competitors. If they are looking to you to learn, it just shows that you’re doing something right.

But sharing is not about volume: i use the word ‘wisely’ intentionally. It’s about adding context to what we share, about ensuring it’s relevant and timely. Be it our support or our resources, it’s about sharing the right things at the right time. Knowing when to offer and being open to being asked.

Reflect on the culture in your own organisation: does it welcome sharing, is it permissive of sharing? Or do you still use knowledge as a mechanism of control?

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Social and Fair: being unheard in the Social Age

When i wrote my first book, ‘Exploring the World of Social Learning‘, i started it by saying how we live in a grey space: between the formal worlds of work and the social lives we inhabit outside of it. Increasingly, it’s hard to differentiate. We work at home and play at work. Everything about the technology and infrastructure that we interact with drives us deeper into this grey space, and that provides us with a unique set of challenges if we want to be socially responsible businesses, if we want to be fair as leaders.

Privacy and Fairness

Just because we can see everything, does it mean we should look?

Who owns these spaces? Is the act of broadcast enough justification for the act of listening? Should we ever turn a blind eye?

Consider these scenarios:

Someone in your team is late for work on Monday, but you know from Facebook that they were out drinking last night. What’s fair? Is it fair to use that knowledge, from the social connection, in the formal world of work?

Someone in your team has a popular blog on a topic related to the area your business works in (say, pharmaceuticals) and they are having a great conversation with someone about navigating ethical challenges. The person they are having a conversation with is CEO of a rival business. Who owns that conversation? Are they helping a competitor to be successful, or are they advancing a valuable conversation for your whole industry? And is it even your business?

Someone in your organisation posts scans from their 12 week antenatal checkup on their personal Twitter account: you know there’s a long project coming up that involves lots of travel. Do you talk to them about it?

We could write a hundred of these, and for each, there would be a position that’s legal and a position that’s fair. They may not always be the same thing.

Technology is eroding the gap between formal, social and hidden spaces. Is love private anymore? Is religion a matter of faith or a matter of pragmatism.

Say you are connected to someone socially who lives in a country where homosexuality is illegal (there are around 80 countries in the world where that’s the case today). In work, they are exemplary in their performance and behaviour, but on Facebook they say something that you or i would find ethically reprehensible (although by the legal and ethical frameworks they may live within, perfectly acceptable). The technology let’s us see this, but it doesn’t help us navigate it.

Does the organisation have a moral right to examine what’s said in the Social Space?

I met someone this week who explained that she could never be on Facebook because of the consequences if a photo of her drunk got out.

But is that fair? Do we not all have a right to do whatever we like, within the legal and ethical frameworks of our culture, in our own free time? We are not indentured to organisations that can no longer give us a job for life and may not even earn our trust.

We can wield out the old argument about bringing the organisation into disrepute, but is that a two way street? Who is liable if a fund manager carries out insider dealing and brings the bank into the news. Are they brining your reputation into disrepute by association?

In the Social Age, we need a fair contract between organisation and individual: one does not own the other. Trust is earned and repaid. We are all human: there is no doubt a lot of work to be done to navigate the ethical challenges that may exist in global businesses, but we have a right to our privacy.

In Social Leadership, i write about ‘humility’ and fairness: doing what’s right. This is the line that socially responsible organisations need to tread.

Just because we can see, doesn’t mean we should look.

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The Boatman

The windows were steamed up this morning: single glazing lets the warm, humid air inside the cottage connect with glass cooled by the fresh sea breeze outside. At this touchpoint, this connection, the condensation forms. Fine drops of water coalescing in places to form larger pools that, unsupported by the glass, run down in rivulets, racing down the pane to the sill where they puddle. As they run, they clear thin vertical windows through which i can see the dawn light outside.


The cottage is on the quayside, facing out into the channel. Barely half a mile away the jetty on the mainland: the channel in between treacherous, filled with the racing tides of the harbour mouth.

I’ve sailed here before: it’s not a maelstrom, that word that conjures up whirlpools, whipping winds and shipwreck, but it’s most certainly muddled water. The tides entering the harbour slip over the waters still flowing out, all of it swirled around by the currents running around the island and compounded by the stone built quay itself, interrupting the waves as they run along the foreshore.

As you ride it, the water changes consistency: first fluid, smooth, then racing surf, then finally a kind of treacly mess that drags on the hull, dulling movement and muddling response.

This morning, as the sun nudges above the horizon, the skies are clear, the morning crisp, still. There’s been heavy rain, but now the only trace remaining is the rainbow arcing overhead and setting land behind the cottage. No pot of gold, but rather an idyllic island, isolated yet connected by tenuous routes over the water.

The quay itself is massive: not massive as in huge, but massively built. Hefty stone dressed in local quarries and set in place a hundred years ago. No pebbles on the beach here: this is constructed to withstand storm and tide, weather and impact.

The quayside is a transit space: nothing lives here, nothing is permanent. It’s the transition between island and mainland. Two trolleys stand idly by, the sort they use in the back of lorries to carry foodstuffs and wheel into supermarkets. There are several wooden benches waiting for people to fill them and there’s a tiny tractor, so small it reminds me of those ride on lawnmowers you see in suburban mansions. Bright red, it stands, forlorn, but ready for duty, a trailer lying next to it, bereft of cargo. It’s a symbol of expectation: it has no purpose except to pull, to assist in the transition.

The centre of the quay is empty, but yesterday i saw it variously filled with milling crowds of tourists, a disassembled marquee and the remnants of a band. It’s a space that assumes multiple purposes, a democratised zone ready to be appropriated to the needs of the islanders as time demands.

The edges though, those are different. Purposeful, specialised, functional and off limits. It’s an unwritten rule, but the ropes, hitching posts, chains and pulleys are the purview of the sailors, the dockhands and harbour master. Even in this edgeland, there are edges. When boats come in, there is a ritual: casting the rope, a quick hitch to kill the momentum, then swing the rear end in. Once tethered front and back, the plank is laid across the gap and chains removed to allow the flow to begin. Cargo, people, animals, children. Everything passes through this space.

The posts the boats moor up to are heavy iron affairs, familiar from docks the world over: rusty red yet polished smooth by rope. Bolted to the stone as if anchored to the centre of the earth itself. Often when you see abandoned boatyards, the building reduced to ruin, the dry docks flooded and half collapsed, cranes rusted and leaning, still you see these bollards, standing firm amidst the decay. Bastions of stability, bereft of purpose but stoical and endless.

My boat arrives: the early morning ferry is tiny. It’s white bow nuzzles the quay before bumping alongside. Capacity must only be twelve or so, in two rows of bench seats, half under cover, along each side. The wheelhouse up front is low and open at the back: perched on top a small silver horn and lifebuoy, it’s red circle bright against the grubby white.

The boat bobs crazily and to board we descent the stone steps, crossing the chain link fence and into the domain of the boatman.

Today, our companions are a small girl in her vibrant red school uniform and the postman, setting off for work on the mainland i assume, his red bag hanging by his side.

Red seems to be a theme: the starboard light is red, the lifebuoys are red, the buoys bobbing in the water are red, the boatman’s jacket is red, the postman’s bag is red, the girls uniform is red and the sun coming over the horizon is tinged with red as it rises. So many things demanding my attention: red is the colour of action and threat, purpose and alert.

The boatman is in his element: his element water.

He’s quiet but not surly. Purposeful, but with an eased gait that speaks of experience and composure. He’s steady on his feet whilst i grip the rails and posts with every step, all too aware of the gap between boat and quay and the black water sucking and beckoning below.

I perch on one bench, opposite the schoolgirl, clutching her satchel and staring at me: i guess they don’t get many strangers on this early ferry. With only thirty residents on the island, a stranger is not hard to spot.

Behind me, the cottage looks peaceful as the sun breaks free from the horizon: signs of life are starting to stir on the waterfront. Doors creaking open, a couple of figures scurrying between home and office, gates opening.

The boatman casts off with an easy flick of the wrist, the rope slipping off the bollard and flying high into the air, deftly caught and coiled in one smooth manoeuvre. The idling of the engine is replaced by a roar and churning of the water by the stern, white spray flicked into the air and a sudden sense of motion and intent.

On an island, everything is about perspective: from the shore, the mainland looks distant, huge. From the quayside, the boat looks small. From the boat, the island looks tiny as it slowly starts to recede.

The distance is one thing, the sense of distance another.

I feel the tenuous nature of my residency shift: after four days, the island feels like home, but that link starts to stretch. As we move further into the water, the call of the mainland increases. My perspective shifts: the island ceases to be my world, partitioned by water, enclosed, insular, remote. Instead, it starts to shift into memory: images flicking through my mind as i write, here on the train. My reality is a grey table and red seats (more red, it’s a day of redness), but the images in my minds eye are from the island. The sense of stillness and timelessness. The quiet walking amongst the trees. The sense of energy on the quayside.

Midway across the channel, the islands ceases to dominate my view: suddenly both sides fit within my peripheral vision, i can see it as a whole, not in it’s parts. Suddenly i am outside looking in. A visitor on my way home, no longer resident.

But with this realisation, comes the sense of homecoming, the point i rejoin my life where i left it off before: reunited but enriched. The memories we form only have purpose when we return: travelling is not just about the journey, it’s about the homecoming too. Only when i am home can i add these memories to my own journey, comparing my time on this island with so many i’ve visited before, adding my own perspective and writing my own narrative.

The boatman steers us onwards, now towards the jetty, towards home. I turn my back to the island, my nose to home, the land getting closer now, looming up until, with a jerk and roar we make contact with the pier.

I step ashore, the ceaseless motion of the deck replaced by that solidity of land that, even after such a short trip, is noticeable. At the top of the steps, climbed in a blur, i look back, seeing the island glimpsed over the water, alive with light as the sun climbs higher. From here it looks low, barely reaching out of the water.

Below me, the Boatman casts off: his is the role of gatekeeper. He belongs to neither realm. Forever leaving or joining, his element is the water itself and the solidity of his boat. King of his domain, his ascendancy unchallenged by cargo or passengers, a solitary figure as the boat starts to recede. Perspective again challenges me: the boat that once filled my view now tiny on the water, it’s movement crazily dancing with light as currents buffet it and the sun climbs ever higher until it’s hard for me to pick it out as my eyes find the sharpness too much to bear.

The boatman recedes as i move onwards. Continuing my journey.

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Island Life: Isolation and Purpose

Barely a mile and a half by one mile, Brownsea Island is hard to get lost on. Nestled like a cork in the bottleneck of Poole Harbour, it’s been inhabited since ancient times, most recently by the National Trust, who preserve and protect it for the nation as a nature reserve and tourist destination.

Brownsea Island 1

Famed as a last bastion of the red squirrel and birthplace of the Scouting movement, it’s place in history is assured, if niche.

I’m here for the week: spending time with family, walking and writing, staying in the old Customs cottage on the quayside.

Islands often struggle to find their purpose, and Brownsea is no exception: over the centuries it’s been variously reincarnated as a daffodil nursery, country estate, shooting lodge, fortress, WW2 decoy, pottery and wilderness.

Like all islands, the constrictions of the water that surround it both give it an urgency and strength. Though separated from Middle England by a scant three hundred metres of water, there is a definite other place atmosphere about it.

Perhaps it’s the boatmen.

Boats are semi mystical: subject to strange customs and currents. Insular and fierce: whether bobbing about on the turbulent waters of the harbour mouth or clustered, moored on the quay, like ducks chasing the last few bits of bread. The captain is an aloof icon: separated often by both height (perched on the bridge above us) and by attitude. The last to leave the ship, their power is both absolute and palpable as they nudge the boat closer to the jetty, inching in to a soft landing against the tide as the waters swirl around us.

Brownsea Island 2

Twice a day the tides rise here: in the mouth of harbour, the water is unpredictable, divided, conflicted. When you kayak here, sensations change by the moment: one minute you sweep forward, the next the hull is gripped as if by treacle. Sticky and turgid, the currents pull you too and fro, before you cut free again on a surge of salty water and make progress once more. Indeed, kayak around the island and you feel it all: the power of the tide behind you, the confusion at the far end of the land, where you sweep round for the return leg and the final battle into the tide.

Shorelines separate this saline domain from the woodlands and peppered heathland of the island. But the shoreline is not a ‘no man’s land‘. It’s a battleground.

In times gone by, the island housed a substantial pottery and, as you walk the shoreline, you see shards and ruins sandwiched in the clay and peat as the cliffs are cut back by the waves. Indeed, the beach on the westward end of the island is carpeted not by sand or stone but instead broken brick and shattered pottery, crunching underfoot as you walk.

Tethered by seaweed, fallen trees bridge the liminal zone and rest their boughs in the water.

Brownsea Island 3

The spine of the island is broached by a stretch of heathland: it’s surface slightly undulating, telling the story of it’s history as a daffodil farm. In bygone ages the blooms and bulbs from here were taken by boat and train to Covent Garden Market in the heart of London to be sold, but today the ridges lie abandoned, though the bulbs still spout, providing tempting and succulent treats to the deer that roam free. The daffodil farm was yet one more attempt to find value in this land: more successful than the pottery, which bankrupted the owner, or the planned resort which was cut short by the great depression.

In a time of constant change, islands are reassuringly static, but we shouldn’t confuse this lethargy with purpose. The land today is preserved, isolated from commercial or environmental pressures by the National Trust, an entity entrusted with conservation and stasis. But restless beneath the surface is an energy and vibrancy: it’s hard to keep an island static. As the sea erodes one side, the silt is deposited elsewhere in an ever moving dance of change. Trees grow and fall: on one stump the age is carved: nearly four hundred years old the oak that fell here. Four hundred years can see a lot of change.

They say that oaks live for nine hundred years: three hundred to grow, three hundred to live and three hundred to die. In all that time, they must weather a lot of change, oversea many fads and follies.

My time on the island is just a dot, a grain of time on a beach. But i can feel there is more here than stasis: the energy of the waters swirling around us permeates the land, drives change in everything, just beneath the surface.

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Fairness: doing what we know is right

Leadership is about many things, but for Social Leaders, a large component if to be fair. It’s not about what the rules tell us: it’s about what our hearts and souls tell us. Does that sound soft? Does that sound slack?

Fairness: right

Values are not deterministic: they are created in the moment, through our behaviour

Imagine this: organisations love ‘values‘. They print them on their literature and, sometimes, paste them to their walls or carve them in reception. ‘Trust‘, ‘Integrity‘, ‘Honesty‘. But are these values deterministic or distilled from our actions?

I can tell you that i’m honest, but if i fail to correct the mistake when the guy in the coffee shop gives me the wrong change, then in that moment, i’m not. Values are not aspirational: they are not deterministic, they are lived in the moment.

We hear the word ‘authenticity‘ a lot these days: Social Leadership gains it’s authenticity by being authentic in our actions in the moment. It’s not about aspiration or determinism: it’s about doing what’s right. In the moment. Because it’s right.

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